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The Yemeni-American adolescent whose artwork will hang in the US Capitol

posted on: Aug 31, 2022

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By: Kimothy Wong/Arab America Contributing Writer

Sally Almaklani was initially apprehensive about participating in the congressional art competition since she had only ever created two formal works of art. Since she could remember, the New York City high school sophomore has been sketching on paper towels, the loose-leaf paper ends, and even the corners of her notebooks.

She claimed that drawing gave her a sense of serenity and peace, but she was hesitant to enter her third picture in a contest judged by US Congressmen. She eventually did participate after being inspired by an instructor who saw her potential. Almaklani decided to paint a Muslim woman instead of her classmates’ famous black figures like Michelle Obama and Rosa Parks. She got the idea for the picture from a picture of a woman she saw on the photo-sharing website Pinterest.

She noticed this stunning Muslim girl and immediately thought she needed to draw her on her canvas. Almaklani’s subsequent painting, which featured a Black Muslim lady wearing a headscarf and confidently standing in front of a sunflower-and-sunflower-adorned background, was chosen for the 14th congressional district of New York.

Democrat Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, representing the district, posted the photograph with her 1.4 million followers. Almaklani will also receive recognition at an annual awards event in Washington, DC, as a winner. This year, Almaklani’s painting will be on exhibit at the US Capitol, with other winning pieces showcased there for a year.

Ocasio-Cortez said she chose the artwork because of its arresting images and the artist’s counter-narrative on hijab: that hijab as a tool of self-expression, hijab can empower young women.” She said the artist’s portrayal of a dazzling young Muslim woman compellingly contradicts Islamophobic tropes against the headscarf. Also, the strong message and stunning look resonate with her district.

Transforming Weakness into Strength

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The incident, while encouraging for American-Muslim teens, occurs against Islamophobic bullying, which is all too common among young people in the area.

Almaklani first encountered Islamophobia while playing basketball in the school gym in middle school. The Yemeni-American teen team won, but a member of the opposition team’s classmate became enraged and started yelling at her and her friends, referring to Almaklani as a “terrorist” in particular. Nobody said a thing, and even Almaklani’s friends, whom she knew disagreed with what he was saying, did not defend her. Almaklani couldn’t express herself.

Many Muslim students can recognize these encounters as a regular part of their daily lives. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), citing a poll of Muslim schoolchildren in Massachusetts, reported that 61 percent had been the target of bullying because of their religion at some point in their life. This occurs in the context of more generalized anti-Muslim sentiments in American society, such as Islamophobia among the Republican establishment and some conservative media. This sentiment increased significantly after 9/11 and the conflicts that followed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

The mainstreaming of Muslim superstars like comedian Hasan Minhaj and actor Riz Ahmed, as well as the ascent of Muslim politicians like Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have coincided with a growth in Muslim representation in popular culture. These people are noteworthy for not avoiding practicing their faith; on the contrary, they take great satisfaction in it.

Almaklani and other teenagers are eager to demonstrate that abandoning one’s religious symbols is not an option. That is why Almaklani drew that with assurance. She said that girls should know they can wear it with assurance and without fear.

She said Muslim women should have a strong sense of strength and determination. They should feel confident in their strong support network and be pleased to identify as Muslims. Almaklani stated that she wants young girls, especially Yemeni-Americans like herself, to learn that overcoming fears is best accomplished by utilizing them as a source of strength.

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